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I am just reading some simple novels to improve my German. I came across a sentence, which is in Konjunktiv II.

Here is the sentence (in bold) in its paragraph. I wonder why it is not in Konjunktiv I. This sentence is not about "desire, dreams, fantasies or imaginary situations". I think the indicative is sufficient.

Der Mann wartet seit über einer halben Stunde im Flur der Detektei Müller. Er sieht krank und müde aus. Seine Haare sind grau und fettig, sein teurer Anzug müsste dringend in die Reinigung.

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Taken from here:

Konjunktiv II verwenden wir hauptsächlich, wenn wir uns etwas vorstellen oder wünschen, das zurzeit nicht möglich ist. Auch in der indirekten Rede oder bei besonders höflichen Fragen oder Aussagen kommt Konjunktiv II zum Einsatz.

English translation from me:

Konjuktiv II is mostly used, when we imagine something or wish something not being possible for now. Also, in reported speech and for polite questions and statements K II should be used.

The author "wishes" politely, that the suit should be cleaned, but he knows, that this will not be possible, because the man is probably poor or something like this. In the literature, this is a common way to create an emotional binding between the reader and the characters.

Footnote: We use KII also for statements for which we know, that they are not true; in many other languages indicative is used instead. For example:

Silke, du hier im Büro? Ich dachte, du wärest im Urlaub!

  • What confused me that the paragraph goes in present indicative (present continuous) and the last sentence suddenly changes to Konjunktiv II. I think Konjunktiv II could be used in the present tense too. – ofenerci Aug 4 '15 at 15:31
  • Konjuktiv II is not present tense... but it can go with it. As I said, if the author had written "Der Anzug muss in Reinigung", it would be just a statement, whereas "müsste" implies some sort of emotion (the author wishes it for the character). – Barth Zalewski Aug 4 '15 at 15:55
  • I disagree with this answer for reasons I detail in my answer. – Wrzlprmft Aug 5 '15 at 11:53
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With verbs that take another verb as an argument (in particular modal verbs) and that imply opportunity, possibility, necessity or similar, it is possible to use the subjunctive II to indicate that what is said to be possible, necessary or similar did indeed not happen (or does/will not happen).

Some examples:

  • Sie durfte den Kuchen essen.
    Sie hätte den Kuchen essen dürfen.

    Both sentences state that she was allowed to eat the cake. The only difference is that the latter one implies that she did not eat the cake, while the former one does not imply anything in this regard.

  • Für einen rechtzeitige Zustellung muss er das Paket morgen abschicken.
    Für einen rechtzeitige Zustellung müsste er das Paket morgen abschicken.

    Both sentences state that for a timely delivery, he has to send the parcel tomorrow. The second one implicates that the speaker considers it impossible (or very unlikely) that he will do so.

  • This question contains another example.

Note that this is different from the regular use of the subjunctive II to indicate that something is not real (irrealis), where the verb corresponding to what is irreal is put into the subjunctive II mood. Here, the verb corresponding to what is irreal is an infinitive and thus cannot be put into the subjunctive mood. Instead a conjugated verb modifying the statement (dürfen, müssen) is put into the subjunctive II mood, which does not indicate, however, that what is described by this verb is irreal – the opportunities, possibilities and necessities are real.

Also note that the modal verbs können, müssen, sollen and dürfen (to all of which the above applies) can also be used to indicate that something is possible or likely for which they either have to be used in the subjunctive II mood (dürfen) or the choice between indicative and subjunctive II at most indicates different probabilities (können, müssen, sollen). Thus, without further context and including the regular use of the subjunctive II, the following sentence can mean three different things:

Er müsste das Paket morgen abschicken.

  1. There is a necessity for him to send the parcel tomorrow, but he will not do it.
  2. It is likely that he sends the parcel tomorrow.
  3. With some irreal condition, such as “Wenn ihm die Angelegenheit wichtig wäre”: (If the condition were true) there would be a necessity for him to send the parcel tomorrow.

Now to your example:

[…] sein teurer Anzug müsste dringend in die Reinigung.

This construction deviates a little from the above as there is no other verb modified by müssen, but if you so wish, there is a verb omitted here that indicates what the suit (Anzug) is supposed to do at the dry-cleaner’s (Reinigung), e.g.:

[…] sein teurer Anzug müsste dringend in die Reinigung gegeben werden.

As with the above examples, the only difference to not using the indicative mood (muss) is that the author does not expect that the suit will actually see a dry-cleaner. For example, it would not make sense to use the subjunctive in the following context.

Nach dem Tomatensaucenvorfall muss sein teurer Anzug in die Reinigung. Deshalb wird er ihn Montag vor der Arbeit dort vorbeibringen.

(After the tomato-sauce incidident, his expensive suit needs to be taken to the dry-cleaner’s. Therefore he will bring it there before work on Monday.)

Note that müssen cannot be used to indicate possibilty or likelihood here, because for this purpose, it would have to be used as a real modal verb (with some infintive).


The latter example makes clear that the subjunctive does not indicate a wish here (see Barth Zalewski’s answer), as we do wish that the suit is thoroughly cleaned. Moreover, to indicate (unreal) wishes, the subjunctive has to modify the verb that relates to the content of the wish, which does not exist in your example and which certainly is not müssen: You do not wish that the suit has to be cleaned, but you wish that the suit is cleaned. The wish is implied through the verb müssen here, not through the subjunctive.

A similar example where the subjunctive II is used to indicate a wish is:

Würde er den Anzug nur in die Reinigung geben!
(If he would only give his suit to the dry-cleaner’s.)

  • 1
    Genau. And I would like to add, that all of these constructions are also used in every-day spoken German. – Carsten S Aug 5 '15 at 18:23
  • @Emanuel: I think that would be too confusing, as the context dependency only arises for dürfen, müssen, sollen and können. For example “Sie hätte die Möglichkeit gehabt, den Kuchen zu essen” is not ambiguous in this way. – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 '15 at 10:35
  • @Emanuel: In what way? It certainly does not indicate that it is possible that she has the opportunity to eat the cake (which would be analogous to the other examples). – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 '15 at 10:41
  • Just check out this search. In the very first example the person clearly HAS the opportunity.. google.de/… – Emanuel Aug 7 '15 at 10:51
  • @Emanuel: Okay, but that’s another kind of ambiguity than the one I was referring to that is due to the modal verbs having a different meaning when used in the subjunctive II mood and being usable in this mood freely, i.e., outside a conditional. – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 '15 at 10:52
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Konjunktiv 1 would be completely wrong here because we're not dealing with reported speech. And that's what K1 is used for.
As for K2... K2 can have several functions and I think it's often actually the context that decides what it does and expresses. The one thing that's true for all uses is that it mars the statement as

"not a simple fact".

And that can help understand why the author chose to mark "müssen" here. In the same sentence he (or she) states that the person's hair is gray and greasy. That is an objective, measurable fact. The obligation for the suit being brought to a cleaning center is not. Why not? Because the obligation is not established by anyone or anything.

Der Anzug muss in die Reinigung, sonst explodiert die Welt.

Here, we do have a reason for an obligation, as stupid as it may be. If a boss says to you

Dein Anzug muss in die Reinigung.

then there's a quite clear obligation, too.
But in the story (as far as we can see) there is nothing imposing the obligation on the protagonist and the narrator is in NO position to do that. So what the narrator makes is ultimately an opinionated statement. The K2 marks it as "not a statement about simple reality" and thus distinguishes it from the indicative. The rest (that it's an opinion) is infered by the reader. In a different context the same sentence could be a "normal" conditional.

Wenn morgen auf Arbeit "Clean Clothes Day" wäre, müsste der Anzug mal zu Reinigung.

Whether the author him or herself wishes for the suit to be cleaned is left open. Maybe the author likes dirty suits but knows that wearing one is frowned upon by society. You can give good advice that goes against your own interest.


TL;DR

There is no established obligation for the suit to be cleaned inside the story. But an indicative "muss" would kind of suggest that there is. The K2 marks the "müssen"-part as not objective, not factual but opinionated.

Caveat:

This is my personal interpretation and analysis. I have no linguistic back up for it. But many people, including scholars and authors of grammar books, say many different things when it comes to function of K2, so as far as I'm concerned it's a free-for-all.

  • I think you are overly narrow in your interpretation of müssen as an external obligation here. Müssen can clearly also used to indicate necessities (Duden, meanings 1c and 2b). Furthermore, if the subjunctive is ever used to mark something as a personal opinion, it’s the subjunctive of politeness, i.e., in direct conversation or similar (»Verzeihen Sie mir, aber Ihr Anzug müsste dringend in die Reinigung«), which is not the case here. – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 '15 at 7:21
  • @Wrzlprmft... I think my statement hasn't been clear enough (particularly one sentence). I am not saying that it marks it as opinion. It just marks it as "not a statement about facts". The rest is done by inference through context. As for the Duden examples... I guess obligation was the wrong word or it is too narrow. The two meanings you pointed at do involve that there's a necessity. 2B could be rephrased to "It is necessary that" and inside there story there is nothing that makes it necessary for the suit to be cleaned. 1c also uses "notwendig". I meant obligation in that sense, too. – Emanuel Aug 7 '15 at 7:28
  • @Wrzlprmft... changed a badly phrased sentence (lower half of the main answer) and added an example that uses the same words within a different context to make clear it's not the conditional that creates the notion of whatever, but the reader in his head. Conditional just says whatever this is here... is not a fact. – Emanuel Aug 7 '15 at 7:33

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